IF IT AIN’T BROKE: BRIAN YOUNG’S BACK TO BASICS VISION
It’s controversial, for sure, to name a dance studio after a factory that violates labor laws. But the name of Brian Young’s pre-professional school, Sweatshop, speaks to Brian’s dedication to, philosophy about and passion for dance that’s earning the school national recognition.
Growing up in Pueblo, Brian tagged along to his sister’s dance classes on Saturday mornings until one day he was put on the spot to help out and dance. His dance career may have only lasted a few weeks were it not for his mom who, recognizing he had a gift, encouraged him to keep dancing. Brian began dancing with tap and jazz classes at Sarah Shaw Dance Studio. Later, “after discovering the importance of ballet,” he studied under Nancy Tracey, whose daughters grew up to be principal dancers with New York City Ballet, at The Ballet Barre at age fourteen. In high school he starred in musicals and, from that point on, knew he wanted to be a performer.
Brian went to college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where, he says, he couldn’t graduate fast enough as he got gigs as both a singer and a dancer. He earned a contract with MGM and worked as a back-up vocalist for Barbara Streisand’s “Timeless” concerts. After a few years in Vegas, he moved to Chicago to train with the prestigious Gus Giordano at Jazz Dance Chicago where he was mentored by Pattie Obey. Caught between dance and music, Brian auditioned for American Idol but saw that as a turning point. Brian says, “signing the waiver that told me they basically would ‘own’ my entire life if I were on the show made me think about what I really wanted. I just realized that, for me, dancing seemed to be more personally fulfilling both physically and artistically…I wanted to ‘create’ things, which led to choreography and teaching.” He continued to travel as a dancer and even worked as a dance captain for Royal Caribbean. Over the years, choreography became more of an inspiration, which lead eventually to teaching.
Brian says his hometown upbringing shaped his world views, his commitment to dance and the desire to sustain the art form. Passing on the heritage of dance was more important than performing. Instilling values, classical training, and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of dance history in the next generation of dancers became his new passion. On a trip home visiting his parents, he taught a couple classes at Colorado Ballet and was soon after offered a full-time position as Competition Program Director at the Academy where he worked until 2011.
After the Colorado Ballet, Brian found a former brass foundry in the Art District on Santa Fe that the landlords were desperate to rent. With a $50,000 loan (the biggest he could get) Brian turned an empty mess into a gorgeous dance facility complete with new drywall and sprung floors, a DIY labor of love, that’s now Sweatshop.
As the owner of a for-profit business, Brian believes that art should be more lucrative for artists. He says Sweatshop pays its faculty two to three times the rate of what other studios have been known to pay. “Artists are their own small businesses,” he says. As such, they need “every skill in the book” to make a living. Brian encourages his students to attend traditional public schools over arts programs or home school programs so that students can spend time focusing on academics in a socially diverse, sometimes adverse, real-world atmosphere to avoid becoming too insulated in dance only. That’s also why Sweatshop is after school only. He wants students to have lives outside of the studio so that they can make it in the real world once school ends. Adversity, he says, will pay off in the end.
Brian believes dance’s hard-won nature makes it rewarding. He wants up-and-coming dancers to be the antithesis of those twenty-year old “master” teachers and students who want to skip the hard work and leap straight to the solo. Sweatshop, with its emphasis on hard work and personal growth, stands out from other studios. Brian calls his approach to teaching “old school” with its focus on artistry, technique and a deep appreciation of the masters, many of whom are dying along with their techniques. “Why change the environment the greats came from?” Brian asks of his training model. With a focus on rigor and a mindset of constructive criticism, the hard work is paying off. Earlier this year Nina Bartell won New York City Dance Alliance’s National Teen Outstanding Female Dancer, the top award at the national competition.
Sweatshop’s cultivation of male dancers also separates it from other studios. Brian says “it just happened” that one of the first graduating students was a really phenomenal male dancer. He says sometimes female studio owners don’t always understand how to train male dancers; men should know how to dance like men not women. “There’s nothing girly about dance. Technique is technique. We’re always challenging them to be bigger, faster, stronger. We approach dance like a sport.” Brian says a different approach is needed with male dancers, especially at the beginning when the faculty communicates on the students’ level until they can learn from anyone.
Brian has also removed value judgements between different dance genres at Sweatshop, believing that dancers should have an arsenal of ideas and movement to pull from. Students learn everything from classical ballet, contemporary, modern, jazz and hip hop. Whether graduates earn a spot at a national company, on a music tour, Broadway or Vegas show or with a professional sports team’s dance squad, there’s no difference. This also allows the graduating students to let their careers shape themselves and to go with what works for them. Sweatshop proves a career in dance can have any number of opportunities. If the past four years are any measure of Brian’s future success, Sweatshop’s going to be churning out dance’s next greats.
If people would like to see Sweatshop in action, the company will be debuting a new piece at the Chance To Dance event on November 7. The company’s season debut concerts will be held on January 10th, 2016 at the Newman Center’s Gates Concert Hall at University of Denver.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.